Liberia, officially the Republic of Liberia, is a country on the West African coast. It is bordered by Sierra Leone to its northwest, Guinea to its north and Ivory Coast to its east

Liberia, officially the Republic of Liberia, is a country on the West African coast. It is bordered by Sierra Leone to its northwest, Guinea to its north, Ivory Coast to its east, and the Atlantic Ocean to its south-southwest. It covers an area of 111,369 square kilometres (43,000 sq mi) and has a population of around 4,900,000. English is the official language, but over 20 indigenous languages are spoken, representing the numerous ethnic groups who make up more than 95% of the population. The country’s capital and largest city is Monrovia.

Location of Liberia (dark blue) – in Africa (light blue & dark grey) – in the African Union (light blue)
Capital
and largest city
Monrovia
6°19′N 10°48′W
Official languagesEnglish
Spoken and national languagesLiberian English
Ethnic groups (2008)20.3% Kpelle13.4% Bassa10% Grebo8% Gio7.9% Mano6% Kru5.1% Lorma4.8% Kissi4.4% Gola4% Krahn4% Vai3.2% Mandingo3% Gbandi1.3% Mende1.2% Sapo0.8% Belle0.3% Dey0.6% other Liberian1.4% other African0.1% non-African
Religion 85.6% Christianity
12.2% Islam
2.2% others
Demonym(s)Liberian
Formation and Independence
• Settlement by the American Colonization Society January 7, 1822
• Liberian Declaration of Independence July 26, 1847
• Annexation of Republic of Maryland March 18, 1857
• Recognition by the United States February 5, 1862
• Admitted to the United Nations November 2, 1945
• Current constitution January 6, 1986
Area
• Total111,369 km2 (43,000 sq mi) (102nd)
• Water (%)13.514
Population
• 2015 estimate4,809,768 (125th)
• 2008 census3,476,608 (130th)
• Density40.43/km2 (104.7/sq mi) (180th)
CurrencyLiberian dollar (LRD)
Time zoneUTC (GMT)
Driving sideright
Calling code+231
ISO 3166 codeLR
Internet TLD.lr

Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), who believed black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States. The country declared its independence on July 26, 1847. The U.S. did not recognize Liberia’s independence until February 5, 1862, during the American Civil War. Between January 7, 1822, and the American Civil War, more than 15,000 freed and free-born black people who faced legislated limits in the U.S., and 3,198 Afro-Caribbeans, relocated to the settlement. The settlers carried their culture and tradition with them. The Liberian constitution and flag were modelled after those of the U.S. On January 3, 1848, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a wealthy, free-born African American from Virginia who settled in Liberia, was elected Liberia’s first president after the people proclaimed independence.

Liberia was the first African republic to proclaim its independence and is Africa’s first and oldest modern republic. It retained its independence during the Scramble for Africa. During World War II, Liberia supported the United States war efforts against Germany and in turn, the U.S. invested in considerable infrastructure in Liberia to help its war effort, which also aided the country in modernizing and improving its major air transportation facilities. In addition, President William Tubman encouraged economic changes. Internationally, Liberia was a founding member of the League of Nations, United Nations, and the Organisation of African Unity.

The Americo-Liberian settlers did not relate well to the indigenous peoples they encountered, especially those in communities of the more isolated “bush”. The colonial settlements were raided by the Kru and Grebo from their inland chiefdoms. Americo-Liberians developed as a small elite that held on to political power, and indigenous tribesmen were excluded from birthright citizenship in their own land until 1904, in an echo of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Americo-Liberians promoted religious organizations to set up missions and schools to educate the indigenous peoples.

In 1980 political tensions from the rule of William R. Tolbert resulted in a military coup during which Tolbert was killed, marking the beginning of years-long political instability. Five years of military rule by the People’s Redemption Council and five years of civilian rule by the National Democratic Party of Liberia were followed by the First and Second Liberian Civil Wars. These resulted in the deaths of 250,000 people (about 8% of the population) and the displacement of many more and shrank Liberia’s economy by 90%. A peace agreement in 2003 led to democratic elections in 2005, in which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President. National infrastructure and basic social services were severely affected by the conflicts, with 83% of the population now living below the international poverty line.

History

A European map of West Africa and the Grain Coast, 1736. It has the archaic mapping designation of Negroland.

The Pepper Coast, also known as the Grain Coast, has been inhabited by indigenous peoples of Africa at least as far back as the 12th century. Mende-speaking people expanded westward from Sudan, forcing many smaller ethnic groups southward toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Dei, Bassa, Kru, Gola, and Kissi were some of the earliest documented peoples in the area.

This influx of these groups was compounded by the decline of the Western Sudanic Mali Empire in 1375 and the Songhai Empire in 1591. The area now called Liberia was a part of the Kingdom of Koya from 1450 to 1898. As inland regions underwent desertification, inhabitants moved to the wetter coast. These new inhabitants brought skills such as cotton spinning, cloth weaving, iron smelting, rice and sorghum cultivation, and social and political institutions from the Mali and Songhai empires. Shortly after the Mane conquered the region, the Vai people of the former Mali Empire immigrated into the Grand Cape Mount County region. The ethnic Kru opposed the influx of Vai, forming an alliance with the Mane to stop further influx of Vai.

People along the coast built canoes and traded with other West Africans from Cap-Vert to the Gold Coast. Arab traders entered the region from the north, and a long-established slave trade took captives to north and east Africa.

Early colonization

Between 1461 and the late 17th century, Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders had contacts and trading posts in the region. The Portuguese named the area Costa da Pimenta (“Pepper Coast”) but it later came to be known as the Grain Coast, due to the abundance of melegueta pepper grains. European traders would barter commodities and goods with local people.

In the United States, there was a movement to settle free-born Blacks and freed slaves in Africa. This was ostensibly because they faced racial discrimination in the form of political disenfranchisement and the denial of civil, religious, and social privileges; most whites and later a small minority of Black nationalists believed that Blacks would be better off in Africa. Southern slaveholders had a different perspective: they wanted to get free people of color out of the South, where they were thought to threaten the apparent stability of their slave societies. In 1816 the American Colonization Society was founded for this purpose in Washington, D.C., by a group of prominent politicians and slaveholders, but its membership grew to include many abolitionists.

In 1822 the American Colonization Society began sending black volunteers to the Pepper Coast, the closest point of Africa and therefore the least expensive to reach, to establish a colony for freed blacks. Although the mortality from tropical diseases was horrendous — of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia between 1820 and 1843, only 1,819 were alive in 1843 — by 1867 the ACS (and state-related chapters) had assisted in the migration of more than 13,000 blacks to Liberia. These free African-Americans and their descendants married within their community and came to identify as Americo-Liberians. Many were of mixed race and educated in American culture; they did not identify with the indigenous natives of the tribes they encountered. They intermarried largely within the colonial community, developing an ethnic group that had a cultural tradition infused with American notions of political republicanism and Protestant Christianity.

Map of Liberia Colony in the 1830s, created by the ACS, and also showing Mississippi Colony and other state-sponsored colonies.

The ACS, supported by prominent American politicians such as Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, and James Monroe, believed repatriation of free African Americans was preferable to widespread emancipation of slaves. Similar state-based organizations established colonies in Mississippi-in-Africa, Kentucky in Africa, and the Republic of Maryland, which Liberia later annexed.

The Americo-Liberian settlers did not relate well to the indigenous peoples they encountered, especially those in communities of the more isolated “bush”. They knew nothing of their cultures, languages, or animist religion, and were not interested in learning. The colonial settlements were raided by the Kru and Grebo from their inland chiefdoms. Encounters with tribal Africans in the bush often became violent confrontations.

In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, Benjamin Dennis and Anita Dennis argues that the Americo-Liberians replicated the only society most of them knew: the racist culture of the American South. Believing themselves different from and culturally and educationally superior to the indigenous peoples, the Americo-Liberians developed as an elite minority that held on to political power. They treated the natives the way American whites had treated them: as inferiors. The natives could not vote and could not speak unless spoken to. Just as American Blacks were prohibited from marrying or having sexual relationships with white women, the natives could not marry Americo-Liberian women. Even when some natives became educated, they were excluded from government positions, except for a token few. Indigenous tribesmen did not enjoy birthright citizenship in their own land until 1904. Americo-Liberians encouraged religious organizations to set up missions and schools to educate the indigenous peoples.

Government

Residence of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, first President of Liberia, between 1848 and 1852.

On July 26, 1847, the settlers issued a Declaration of Independence and promulgated a constitution. Based on the political principles of the United States Constitution, it established the independent Republic of Liberia. The United Kingdom was the first country to recognize Liberia’s independence. The United States did not recognize Liberia until 1862, after the southern states, who had significant influence in the American government, seceded from the union to form the Confederacy.

The leadership of the new nation consisted largely of the Americo-Liberians, who initially established political and economic dominance in the coastal areas that the ACS had purchased; they maintained relations with U.S. contacts in developing these areas and the resulting trade. Their passage of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act prohibited foreign commerce with the inland tribes, ostensibly to “encourage the growth of civilized values” before such trade was allowed in the region.

By 1877, the True Whig Party was the country’s most powerful political entity. It was made up primarily of Americo-Liberians, who maintained social, economic and political dominance well into the 20th century, repeating patterns of European colonists in other nations in Africa. Competition for office was usually contained within the party; a party nomination virtually ensured election.

Pressure from the United Kingdom, which controlled Sierra Leone to the northwest, and France, with its interests in the north and east, led to a loss of Liberia’s claims to extensive territories. Both Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast annexed territories. Liberia struggled to attract investment to develop infrastructure and a larger, industrial economy.

There was a decline in production of Liberian goods in the late 19th century, and the government struggled financially, resulting in indebtedness on a series of international loans. On July 16, 1892, Martha Ann Erskine Ricks met Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and presented her a handmade quilt, Liberia’s first diplomatic gift. Born into slavery in Tennessee, Ricks said, “I had heard it often, from the time I was a child, how good the Queen had been to my people—to slaves—and how she wanted us to be free.”

Early 20th century

Charles D. B. King, 17th President of Liberia (1920–1930), with his entourage on the steps of the Peace Palace, The Hague (the Netherlands), 1927.

American and other international interests emphasized resource extraction, with rubber production a major industry in the early 20th century. In 1914 Imperial Germany accounted for three-quarters of the trade of Liberia. This was a cause for concern among the British colonial authorities of Sierra Leone and the French colonial authorities of French Guinea and the Ivory Coast as tensions with Germany increased.

First World War

Liberia remained neutral during World War I until August 1917, when it declared war on Germany. In 1919 Liberia attended the Versailles Peace Conference. Liberia was one of the founding members of the League of Nations when it was founded in January 1920.

Middle 20th century

In 1929 allegations of modern slavery in Liberia led the League of Nations to establish the Christy commission. Findings included government involvement in widespread “Forced or compulsory labour”. Minority ethnic groups especially were exploited in a system that enriched well-connected elites. As a result of the report, President Charles D. B. King and Vice President Allen N. Yancy resigned.

In the mid-20th century, Liberia gradually began to modernize with American assistance. During World War II the United States made major infrastructure improvements to support its military efforts in Africa and Europe against Germany. It built the Freeport of Monrovia and Roberts International Airport under the Lend-Lease program before its entry into the Second World War.

After the war, President William Tubman encouraged foreign investment in the country. Liberia had the second-highest rate of economic growth in the world during the 1950s.

Liberia also began to take a more active role in international affairs. It was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and became a vocal critic of the South African apartheid regime. Liberia also served as a proponent both of African independence from European colonial powers and of Pan-Africanism and helped to fund the Organisation of African Unity.

Late 20th-century political instability

A technical in Monrovia during the Second Liberian Civil War.

On April 12, 1980, a military coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of the Krahn ethnic group overthrew and killed President William R. Tolbert, Jr. Doe and the other plotters later executed a majority of Tolbert’s cabinet and other Americo-Liberian government officials and True Whig Party members. The coup leaders formed the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) to govern the country. A strategic Cold War ally of the West, Doe received significant financial backing from the United States while critics condemned the PRC for corruption and political repression.

After Liberia adopted a new constitution in 1985, Doe was elected president in subsequent elections that were internationally condemned as fraudulent. On November 12, 1985, a failed counter-coup was launched by Thomas Quiwonkpa, whose soldiers briefly occupied the national radio station. Government repression intensified in response, as Doe’s troops retaliated by executing members of the Gio and Mano ethnic groups in Nimba County.

The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a rebel group led by Charles Taylor, launched an insurrection in December 1989 against Doe’s government with the backing of neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. This triggered the First Liberian Civil War. By September 1990, Doe’s forces controlled only a small area just outside the capital, and Doe was captured and executed in that month by rebel forces.

The rebels soon split into various factions fighting one another. The Economic Community Monitoring Group under the Economic Community of West African States organized a military task force to intervene in the crisis. From 1989 to 1996, more than 200,000 Liberians died and a million others were displaced into refugee camps in neighbouring countries. A peace deal between warring parties was reached in 1995, leading to Taylor’s election as president in 1997.

Under Taylor’s leadership, Liberia became internationally known as a pariah state due to its use of blood diamonds and illegal timber exports to fund the Revolutionary United Front in the Sierra Leone Civil War. The Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999 when Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a rebel group based in the northwest of the country, launched an armed insurrection against Taylor.

The 2000s

Ebola virus epidemic in Liberia in February 2015

In March 2003, a second rebel group, Movement for Democracy in Liberia, began launching attacks against Taylor from the southeast. Peace talks between the factions began in Accra in June of that year, and Taylor was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity the same month. By July 2003, the rebels had launched an assault on Monrovia. Under heavy pressure from the international community and the domestic Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, Taylor resigned in August 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria.

A peace deal was signed later that month. The United Nations Mission in Liberia began arriving in September 2003 to provide security and monitor the peace accord, and an interim government took power the following October.

The subsequent 2005 elections were internationally regarded as the freest and fair in Liberian history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist and former Minister of Finance, was elected as the first female president in Africa. Upon her inauguration, Sirleaf requested the extradition of Taylor from Nigeria and transferred him to the SCSL for trial in The Hague.

In 2006, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the causes and crimes of the civil war.

Following the 2017 Liberian general election, former professional football striker George Weah, one of the greatest African players of all time, was sworn in as president on 22 January 2018, becoming the 4th youngest serving president in Africa. The inauguration marked Liberia’s first fully democratic transition in 74 years. Weah cited fighting corruption, reforming the economy, combating illiteracy and improving living conditions as the main targets of his presidency.

Politics

Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

The government of Liberia, modeled on the government of the United States, is a unitary constitutional republic and representative democracy as established by the Constitution. The government has three co-equal branches of government: the executive, headed by the president; the legislative, consisting of the bicameral Legislature of Liberia; and the judicial, consisting of the Supreme Court and several lower courts.

The president serves as head of government, head of state, and the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Among the president’s other duties are to sign or veto legislative bills, grant pardons, and appoint Cabinet members, judges, and other public officials. Together with the vice president, the president is elected to a six-year term by majority vote in a two-round system and can serve up to two terms in office.

The Legislature is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House, led by a speaker, has 73 members apportioned among the 15 counties on the basis of the national census, with each county receiving a minimum of two members. Each House member represents an electoral district within a county as drawn by the National Elections Commission and is elected by a plurality of the popular vote of their district into a six-year term. The Senate is made up of two senators from each county for a total of 30 senators. Senators serve nine-year terms and are elected at-large by a plurality of the popular vote. The vice president serves as the President of the Senate, with a President pro tempore serving in their absence.

Liberia’s highest judicial authority is the Supreme Court, made up of five members and headed by the Chief Justice of Liberia. Members are nominated to the court by the president and are confirmed by the Senate, serving until the age of 70. The judiciary is further divided into circuit and specialty courts, magistrate courts and justices of the peace. The judicial system is a blend of common law, based on Anglo-American law, and customary law. An informal system of traditional courts still exists within the rural areas of the country, with trial by ordeal remaining common despite being officially outlawed.

From 1877 to 1980 the government was dominated by the True Whig Party. Today over 20 political parties are registered in the country, based largely around personalities and ethnic groups. Most parties suffer from poor organizational capacity. The 2005 elections marked the first time that the president’s party did not gain a majority of seats in the Legislature.

Corruption

Corruption is endemic at every level of the Liberian government. When President Sirleaf took office in 2006, she announced that corruption was “the major public enemy.” In 2014 the US ambassador to Liberia said that corruption there was harming people through “unnecessary costs to products and services that are already difficult for many Liberians to afford”.

Liberia scored a 3.3 on a scale from 10 (highly clean) to 0 (highly corrupt) on the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. This gave it a ranking 87th of 178 countries worldwide and 11th of 47 in Sub-Saharan Africa. This score represented a significant improvement since 2007 when the country scored 2.1 and ranked 150th of 180 countries. When dealing with public-facing government functionaries, 89% of Liberians say they have had to pay a bribe, the highest national percentage in the world according to the organization’s 2010 Global Corruption Barometer.

Military

The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) are the country’s armed forces. Founded as the Liberian Frontier Force in 1908, the military was renamed in 1956. For virtually all of its history, the AFL has received considerable material and training assistance from the United States. For most of the 1941–89 period, training was largely provided by U.S. advisers. After UN Security Council Resolution 1509 in September 2003, the United Nations Mission in Liberia arrived to referee the ceasefire with units from Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, and China with the view to assist the National Transitional Government of Liberia in forming the new Liberian military.

Foreign relations

President Sirleaf with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and British PM David Cameron in September 2015

After the turmoil following the First and Second Liberian Civil Wars, Liberia’s internal stabilization in the 21st century brought a return to cordial relations with neighbouring countries and much of the Western world. As in other African countries, China is an important part of the post-conflict reconstruction.

In the past, both of Liberia’s neighbours, Guinea and Sierra Leone have accused Liberia of backing rebels in their countries.

Law enforcement

The Liberian National Police is the country’s national police force. As of October 2007, it has 844 officers in 33 stations in Montserrado County, which contains Monrovia. The National Police Training Academy is in Paynesville City. A history of corruption among police officers diminishes public trust and operational effectiveness. The internal security is characterized by general lawlessness coupled with the danger that former combatants in the late civil war might reestablish militias to challenge the civil authorities.

Economy and infrastructure

A proportional representation of Liberian exports. The shipping related categories reflect Liberia’s status as an international flag of convenience

The Central Bank of Liberia is responsible for printing and maintaining the Liberian dollar, Liberia’s primary currency. Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a formal employment rate of 15%. GDP per capita peaked in 1980 at US$496 when it was comparable to Egypt’s (at the time). In 2011 the country’s nominal GDP was US$1.154 billion, while nominal GDP per capita stood at US$297, the third-lowest in the world. Historically the Liberian economy has depended heavily on foreign aid, foreign direct investment and exports of natural resources such as iron ore, rubber, and timber.

Following a peak in growth in 1979, the Liberian economy began a steady decline due to economic mismanagement after the 1980 coup. This decline was accelerated by the outbreak of civil war in 1989; GDP was reduced by an estimated 90% between 1989 and 1995, one of the fastest declines in history.[83] Upon the end of the war in 2003, GDP growth began to accelerate, reaching 9.4% in 2007.[84] The global financial crisis slowed GDP growth to 4.6% in 2009,[84] though a strengthening agricultural sector led by rubber and timber exports increased growth to 5.1% in 2010 and an expected 7.3% in 2011, making the economy one of the 20 fastest-growing in the world.

Current impediments to growth include a small domestic market, lack of adequate infrastructure, high transportation costs, poor trade links with neighbouring countries and the high dollarization of the economy. Liberia used the United States dollar as its currency from 1943 until 1982 and continues to use the U.S. dollar alongside the Liberian dollar.

A boy grinding sugar cane.

Following a decrease in inflation beginning in 2003, inflation spiked in 2008 as a result of worldwide food and energy crises, reaching 17.5% before declining to 7.4% in 2009. Liberia’s external debt was estimated in 2006 at approximately $4.5 billion, 800% of GDP. As a result of bilateral, multilateral and commercial debt relief from 2007 to 2010, the country’s external debt fell to $222.9 million by 2011.

While official commodity exports declined during the 1990s as many investors fled the civil war, Liberia’s wartime economy featured the exploitation of the region’s diamond wealth. The country acted as a major trader in Sierra Leonian blood diamonds, exporting over US$300 million in diamonds in 1999. This led to a United Nations ban on Liberian diamond exports in 2001, which was lifted in 2007 following Liberia’s accession to the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme.

In 2003, additional UN sanctions were placed on Liberian timber exports, which had risen from US$5 million in 1997 to over US$100 million in 2002 and were believed to be funding rebels in Sierra Leone. These sanctions were lifted in 2006. Due in large part to foreign aid and investment inflow following the end of the war, Liberia maintains a large account deficit, which peaked at nearly 60% in 2008. Liberia gained observer status with the World Trade Organization in 2010 and is in the process of acquiring full member status.

Liberia has the highest ratio of foreign direct investment to GDP in the world, with US$16 billion in investment since 2006. Following Sirleaf’s inauguration in 2006, Liberia signed several multi-billion-dollar concession agreements in the iron ore and palm oil industries with numerous multinational corporations, including BHP Billiton, ArcelorMittal, and Sime Darby. Palm oil companies like Sime Darby (Malaysia) and Golden Veroleum (USA) have been accused of destroying livelihoods and displacing local communities, enabled by government concessions.[98] Since 1926 The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company have operated the world’s largest rubber plantation in Harbel, Margibi County. As of 2015, it had more than 8,000 mostly Liberian employees, making it the country’s largest private employer.

Shipping flag of convenience

Due to its status as a flag of convenience, Liberia has the second-largest maritime registry in the world behind Panama. It has 3,500 vessels registered under its flag, accounting for 11% of ships worldwide.

Telecommunications

There are six major newspapers in Liberia, and 45% of the population has mobile phone service. Much of Liberia’s communications infrastructure was destroyed or plundered during the two civil wars (1989–1996 and 1999–2003). With low rates of adult literacy and high poverty rates, television and newspaper use is limited, leaving radio as the predominant means of communicating with the public.

Transportation

Liberia’s economic main links to the outside world come through Monrovia, via the port and airport in the capital.

Energy

Public electricity services are provided solely by the state-owned Liberia Electricity Corporation, which operates a small grid almost exclusively in the Greater Monrovia District. The vast majority of electric energy services are provided by small, privately-owned generators. At $0.54 per kWh, the cost of electricity in Liberia is among the highest in the world. Total capacity in 2013 was 20 MW, a sharp decline from a peak of 191 MW in 1989 before the wars.

Completion of the repair and expansion of the Mount Coffee Hydropower Project, with a maximum capacity of 80 MW, is scheduled to be completed by 2018. Construction of three new heavy fuel oil power plants is expected to boost electrical capacity by 38 MW. In 2013, Liberia began importing power from neighbouring Ivory Coast and Guinea through the West African Power Pool.

Liberia has begun exploration for offshore oil; unproven oil reserves may be in excess of one billion barrels. The government divided its offshore waters into 17 blocks and began auctioning off exploration licenses for the blocks in 2004, with further auctions in 2007 and 2009. An additional 13 ultra-deep offshore blocks were demarcated in 2011 and planned for auction. Among the companies to have won licenses are Repsol YPF, Chevron Corporation, and Woodside Petroleum.

Demographics

As of the 2017 national census, Liberia was home to 4,694,608 people. Of those, 1,118,241 lived in Montserrado County, the most populous county in the country and home to the capital of Monrovia. The Greater Monrovia District has 970,824 residents. Nimba County is the next most populous county, with 462,026 residents. As revealed in the 2008 census, Monrovia is more than four times more populous than all the county capitals combined.

Prior to the 2008 census, the last census had been taken in 1984 and listed the country’s population as 2,101,628. The population of Liberia was 1,016,443 in 1962 and increased to 1,503,368 in 1974. As of 2006, Liberia had the highest population growth rate in the world (4.50% per annum). In 2010 some 43.5% of Liberians were below the age of 15.

Ethnic groups

The population includes 16 indigenous ethnic groups and various foreign minorities. Indigenous peoples comprise about 95 percent of the population. The 16 officially recognized ethnic groups include the Kpelle, Bassa, Mano, Gio or Dan, Kru, Grebo, Krahn, Vai, Gola, Mandingo or Mandinka, Mende, Kissi, Gbandi, Loma, Dei or Dewoin, Belleh, and Americo-Liberians or Congo people.

The Kpelle comprise more than 20% of the population and are the largest ethnic group in Liberia, residing mostly in Bong County and adjacent areas in central Liberia. Americo-Liberians, who are descendants of African American and West Indian, mostly Barbadian (Bajan) settlers, make up 2.5%. Congo people, descendants of repatriated Congo and Afro-Caribbean slaves who arrived in 1825, make up an estimated 2.5%. These latter two groups established political control in the 19th century which they kept well into the 20th century.

Numerous immigrants have come as merchants and become a major part of the business community, including Lebanese, Indians, and other West African nationals. There is a high percentage of interracial marriage between ethnic Liberians and the Lebanese, resulting in a significant mixed-race population especially in and around Monrovia. A small minority of Liberians who are White Africans of European descent reside in the country. The Liberian constitution restricts citizenship to “Negroes or persons of Negro descent.”

Languages

English is the official language and serves as the lingua franca of Liberia. Thirty-one indigenous languages are spoken in Liberia, but each is the first language for only a small percentage of the population. Liberians also speak a variety of creolized dialects collectively known as Liberian English.

Religion

Religion in Liberia (2010)
Religion
Protestantism76.3%
Islam12.2%
Roman Catholicism7.2%
Other Christian1.6%
Unaffiliated1.4%
Other faith1.3%

According to the 2008 National Census, 85.6% of the population practices Christianity, while Muslims represent a minority of 12.2%. A multitude of diverse Protestant confessions such as Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) denominations form the bulk of the Christian population, followed by adherents of the Roman Catholic Church and other non-Protestant Christians. Most of these Christian denominations were brought by African American settlers moving from the United States into Liberia via the American Colonization Society, while some are indigenous—especially Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant ones. Protestantism was originally associated with Black American settlers and their Americo-Liberian descendants, while native peoples held to their own animist forms of African traditional religion. Indigenous people were subject to Christian missionary, as well as Americo-Liberian efforts to close the cultural gap by means of education. This proved successful, leaving Christians a majority in the country.

Muslims comprise 12.2% of the population, largely represented by the Mandingo and Vai ethnic groups. Liberian Muslims are divided between Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadiyyas, Sufis, and non-denominational Muslims.

Traditional indigenous religions are practised by 0.5% of the population, while 1.5% subscribe to no religion. A small number of people are Bahá’í, Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist. While Christian, many Liberians also participate in traditional, gender-based indigenous religious secret societies, such as Poro for men and Sande for women. The all-female Sande society practices female circumcision.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right. While separation of church and state is mandated by the Constitution, Liberia is considered a Christian state in practice. Public schools offer biblical studies, though parents may opt their children out. Commerce is prohibited by law on Sundays and major Christian holidays. The government does not require businesses or schools to excuse Muslims for Friday prayers.

Education

Students studying by candlelight in Bong County

In 2010, the literacy rate of Liberia was estimated at 60.8% (64.8% for males and 56.8% for females). In some areas, primary and secondary education is free and compulsory from the ages of 6 to 16, though enforcement of attendance is lax. In other areas children are required to pay a tuition fee to attend school. On average, children attain 10 years of education (11 for boys and 8 for girls). The country’s education sector is hampered by inadequate schools and supplies, as well as a lack of qualified teachers.

Higher education is provided by a number of public and private universities. The University of Liberia is the country’s largest and oldest university. Located in Monrovia, the university opened in 1862. Today it has six colleges, including a medical school and the nation’s only law school, Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law.

In 2009, Tubman University in Harper, Maryland County was established as the second public university in Liberia. Since 2006, the government has also opened community colleges in Buchanan, Sanniquellie, and Voinjama.

Due to student protests late in October 2018, newly elected president George M. Weah abolished tuition fees for undergraduate students in the public universities in Liberia.

Private universities

  • Cuttington University was established by the Episcopal Church of the USA in 1889 in Suakoko, Bong County, as part of its missionary education work among indigenous peoples. It is the nation’s oldest private university.
  • Stella Maris Polytechnic, a post-secondary, private institution of higher learning. Founded in 1988, the school is owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Monrovia. Located on Capitol Hill, the school has approximately 2,000 students.
  • The Adventist University of West Africa, a post-secondary learning environment that is situated in Margibi County, on the Roberts International Airport.
  • United Methodist University, a private Christian university located in Liberia, West Africa, it is commonly known amongst locals as UMU. As of 2016, it had approximately 9,118 students. This institution was founded in 1998.
  • African Methodist Episcopal University, a private higher education institution that was founded in 1995.

Health

Hospitals in Liberia include the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia and several others. Life expectancy in Liberia is estimated to be 57.4 years in 2012. With a fertility rate of 5.9 births per woman, the maternal mortality rate stood at 990 per 100,000 births in 2010. A number of highly communicable diseases are widespread, including tuberculosis, diarrheal diseases and malaria. In 2007, the HIV infection rates stood at 2% of the population aged 15–49 whereas the incidence of tuberculosis was 420 per 100,000 people in 2008. Approximately 58.2% – 66% of women are estimated to have undergone female genital mutilation.

Liberia imports 90% of its rice, a staple food, and is extremely vulnerable to food shortages. In 2007, 20.4% of children under the age of five were malnourished. In 2008, only 17% of the population had access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Approximately 95% of the country’s healthcare facilities had been destroyed by the time civil war ended in 2003. In 2009, government expenditure on health care per capita was US$22, accounting for 10.6% of total GDP. In 2008, Liberia had only one doctor and 27 nurses per 100,000 people.

In 2014, an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea spread to Liberia. As of November 17, 2014, there were 2,812 confirmed deaths from the ongoing outbreak. In early August 2014 Guinea closed its borders to Liberia to help contain the spread of the virus, as more new cases were being reported in Liberia than in Guinea. On May 9, 2015, Liberia was declared Ebola-free after six weeks with no new cases.

According to an Overseas Development Institute report, private health expenditure accounts for 64.1% of total spending on health.

Crime

Rape and sexual assault are frequent in the post-conflict era in Liberia. Liberia has one of the highest incidences of sexual violence against women in the world. Rape is the most frequently reported crime, accounting for more than one-third of sexual violence cases. Adolescent girls are the most frequently assaulted, and almost 40% of perpetrators are adult men known to victims.

Both male and female homosexuality is illegal in Liberia. On July 20, 2012, the Liberian senate voted unanimously to enact legislation to prohibit and criminalize same-sex marriages.

Culture

Bassa culture. Helmet Mask for Sande Society (Ndoli Jowei), Liberia. 20th century. Brooklyn Museum.

The religious practices, social customs and cultural standards of the Americo-Liberians had their roots in the antebellum American South. The settlers wore top hat and tails and modelled their homes on those of Southern slaveowners. Most Americo-Liberian men were members of the Masonic Order of Liberia, which became heavily involved in the nation’s politics.

Liberia has a rich history in textile arts and quilting, as the settlers brought with them their sewing and quilting skills. Liberia hosted National Fairs in 1857 and 1858 in which prizes were awarded for various needle arts. One of the most well-known Liberian quilters was Martha Ann Ricks, who presented a quilt featuring the famed Liberian coffee tree to Queen Victoria in 1892. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf moved into the Executive Mansion, she reportedly had a Liberian-made quilt installed in her presidential office.

A rich literary tradition has existed in Liberia for over a century. Edward Wilmot Blyden, Bai T. Moore, Roland T. Dempster and Wilton G. S. Sankawulo are among Liberia’s more prominent authors. Moore’s novella Murder in the Cassava Patch is considered Liberia’s most celebrated novel.

Polygamy

One-third of married Liberian women between the ages of 15–49 are in polygamous marriages. Customary law allows men to have up to four wives.

Cuisine

A beachside barbeque at Sinkor, Monrovia, Liberia

Liberian cuisine heavily incorporates rice, the country’s staple food. Other ingredients include cassava, fish, bananas, citrus fruit, plantains, coconut, okra and sweet potatoes. Heavy stews spiced with habanero and scotch bonnet chillies are popular and eaten with fufu. Liberia also has a tradition of baking imported from the United States that is unique in West Africa.

Sport

The most popular sport in Liberia is association football, with President George Weah — the only African to be named FIFA World Player of the Year — being the nation’s most famous athlete. The Liberia national football team has reached the Africa Cup of Nations finals twice, in 1996 and 2002.

The second most popular sport in Liberia is basketball. The Liberian national basketball team has reached the AfroBasket twice, in 1983 and 2007.

In Liberia, the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex serves as a multi-purpose stadium. It hosts FIFA World Cup qualifying matches in addition to international concerts and national political events.

Measurement system

Liberia is one of only three countries that have not officially adopted the International System of Units (short SI, also called the metric system), the others being the United States and Myanmar.

  • In the United States, the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and designated the metric system as “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce”, but is mixed in consumer usage, with the population generally preferring customary units and industries either fully metric or mixed.
  • Myanmar has made an official decision to metricate and, since 2013, has been transitioning away from Imperial and Burmese units in the past few years. Gasoline sales are now in litres.

The Liberian government has begun transitioning away from the use of United States Customary Units to the metric system. However, this change has been gradual, with government reports concurrently using both United States Customary and metric units. In 2018 the Liberian Commerce and Industry Minister announced that the Liberian government are committed to adopting the metric system.

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